Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

It's a real joy to be able to write this review. I have been journeying through a month or so of bestselling popular fiction with a historical bent, aimed at women - this was not my plan but all my library holds came in at once! And it was a nice change, after Gravity's Rainbow, to take on some easy reading.

Having worked my way through the latest offerings from blockbuster authors Diana Gabaldon and Philippa Gregory, I turned to The Heretic's Daughter with no more than mild interest: new author, somewhat titillating subject of the Salem witch trials - and found that I had saved the best till last. Even better, given my interest in publishing blogs, was the discovery that this novel was fished out of the slushpile (by an editor who deserves a raise). Yes, writer friends, it does happen.

Kent based her novel on her own family's history, her ancestor Martha Carrier having been implicated in this infamous passage of American history. She chose to write the story through the eyes of Martha's (real or fictional?) daughter Sarah, and removed it a step farther by giving it the voice of the adult Sarah relating a memoir of the darkest period of her childhood. It works.

I won't include any spoilers, because you'll want to read this one. I'm trying not to get too fulsome over this book, but it is hard to believe it's a first novel. Kent writes with the authority of a seasoned author, helped no doubt by excellent editing.

In short, this book has polish. It sings. It soars. The pacing is tight, the dialog spare and focused, the prose passages lyrical but not overdone. I don't know much about the witch trials, but I found all the details completely believable and could really see the scenes and the action in my mind. In the right hands, this could make an excellent movie.

The story is in many ways a brutal one, even before the accusations and trials begin, but convincingly portrays a family which, although in no way close (because of the hardships of their lives) manages to remain a loyal unit through the worst possible turns of fate. The family theme is just the right balance for the divisiveness of the wider community, and Kent handles some difficult moments when the two collide extremely well.

I'd better stop here before I give away any vital details. The verdict: excellent. I even liked the ending, and if you've read any of my earlier reviews you may have spotted that I'm picky on that score. Well done, Kathleen Kent; I'll be waiting for your next book.
P.S. I also like the cover design. Props to Little, Brown for getting that right. Publishers please note: it is RESTRAINED.
P.P.S. Do I sometimes come over as too critical? I don't mean to be. If they all wrote this well, I'd be singing all the way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian- Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian- Sherman Alexie

When I was in college, I read Alexie's collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I loved his work then, so I'm not sure why it took me so long to pick up this book. It was only sort of on my radar, but when I found myself sitting in my school's library waiting for students to finish reading tests, I was drawn to it on the shelf and thought I would read a little bit. Well, a little bit turned into the entire novel in short order. (Note to the FCC- since I know this is your favorite blog to read... book was checked out from my school's library)

Arnold "Junior" Spirit is a Spokane Indian living on the rez in the Northeastern United States. He is poor; his friends are poor; the entire reservation is poor and without much hope. Junior is excited to start high school, despite the beatings he is sure to receive. He's been a town punching bag since birth because of his plethora of physical defects and personality quirks. He would likely be in much worse shape if his best friend Rowdy wasn't always looking for a fight and willing to stick up for him. When Junior receives his math book in his first class and finds that it's the same book his mother used thirty plus years prior, he loses all patience and decides that he must get off the rez and go to the white school in the farm town 22 miles away. This decision leads to a backlash from his tribe and he soon fits in nowhere. Throughout the novel Junior's life gets better in some areas, but completely falls apart in others. His sense of humor and wit however, never falter.

I really loved this book. The voice was spectacular, probably due in part to the semi-autobiographical nature of the writing, but Alexie really nails it. Junior's humor and observations cut right to the bone. Alexie never shies away from the difficult and unsavory aspects of life as a teenage boy, or life as Native American. Though it was lightly uncomfortable at times for me, a white woman, to read, I could still relate and sympathize with Junior's pain and coming from a small town myself, his deep desire to leave and make his mark on the world.

Though this book is technically YA fiction, it is worth everyone reading. The pain of being a teenager is something that no one is impervious to. Though, I particularly think this book would be fantastic for reluctant readers, particularly boys. I plan to have my literacy class of struggling juniors, all boys, read this. The pacing is well done, and while the themes and issues have a remarkable depth, the language is easy to read. I also loved the cartoons throughout. They were hilarious and totally believable. I dislike books where pictures just seem to be added in but don't actually add anything to the story. These drawings moved the plot just as much as words, sometimes more so. Overall, a triumph of the teenage years by Alexie. I'm sure that this will be a favorite of many.

You can read my other reviews HERE.

Small Miracles by Edward M. Lerner

Small Miracles by Edward M. Lerner
Tor Books (2009)
Sci-fi Thriller, 352 pages

What's the matter? Got a bot in your brain?

For nanosuit salesman, Brent Cleary, that's exactly what his problem is. While on a ride-along with one of Garner Nanotech's biggest customers, the police force, a nearby gas pipe explosion proves to Brent just how lucky he was to be wearing a nanosuit when it happened. No one else survived.

The suits are full of nanobots, which serve a few different purposes. The main two, they make the suit rigid if something impacts it, and if injured (you can still get pretty banged up if the impact is strong enough), you're injected with millions of these microscopic robots. Once inside, the nanobots "fix" you, then self destruct.

In theory.

After months of recovery, Brent returns to his office at Garner Nanotech, with no real motivation to get his head back in the game. His best friend and co-worker, Kim O'Donnell notices that Brent just isn't quite the same since "the accident." Much of this is understandably attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Brent goes to a few psych sessions in an attempt to cure it. Doesn't work, but he does learn how to self-hypnotize, which helps him "convert" people later.

Kim gets more and more frustrated with Brent's odd behavior, and his insistence on constantly wearing VR specs makes it all the more annoying. VR specs look like sunglasses on the outside, but to the wearer, they are instant access to anything on the internet. And hands-free. All the browsing is controlled by eye movement, and you can even IM others wearing their own specs, or someone on a laptop… pretty much anyone else on the 'net.

Not only is Brent calloused and unmotivated, Kim sees him getting smarter by the day, and suddenly he's coming up with groundbreaking ideas for the nanosuits, which are about to be tested on Garner Nanotech's main client, the military.

The first third of the book is somewhat slow and full of scientific details. If you're not into hard science, this could potentially be a turn-off. But I would encourage you to get through it, because the pay-off is EFFING SWEET. At about one-third in, you realize what's going on with Brent. One of the bots somehow got through the blood brain barrier (BBB) and decided to camp out in his brain. Using info channeled through the VR specs and down Brent's optic nerve, the bot gathers data and then uses it to its own advantage. Namely, it doesn't want to be the only one of its kind.

This is where things start to go awry. Even after Brent realizes he's got a bot in his brain (even figures out how to communicate with it… kind of like telepathy, but not quite), he is basically a puppet to its demands. And a machine has no morals. Brent commits atrocities he would have never dreamed of as "old Brent", but even with this realization, he continues.

When you've got a bot in your brain, it controls everything: your speech, your actions, the chemicals that affect emotion. Scary.

Scarier still is what happens once Brent is not the only Emergent anymore. Emergent is what they (the bot-infested humans) refer to themselves as. They feel they are superior to "old humans", and really, they are. They don't even have to use speech to communicate anymore. And their plan is simple: convert the entire human race to be just like them.

The final third of this book is non-stop thriller, and has a few twists thrown in that I honestly didn't see coming. If you confuse easily, however, you might not enjoy it as much. The final chapters are extremely intense--overlapping POV's (including that of the nanobots in different characters' heads), technical explanations thrown out at rapid speed, and a necessary ability for the reader to connect everything that happened up to that point--so you might find it difficult to keep everything straight.

Highly recommended for sci-fi readers. For others, the "science speak" may get to be too distracting and/or confusing. But the core story so strictly adheres to "something bad happens to an average guy, it changes him, things go wrong, then he must do what he can to fix the problems he created," that I think anyone in the mood for a good thrill ride would enjoy reading this.

~Lydia Sharp

Monday, January 25, 2010

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

I must confess to being something of a Philippa Gregory fan. Having discovered her years ago through the Wideacre trilogy, I have since read most of her books. Lately she has been working her way through the Tudor kings and queens of England, and has now struck into a new historical vein, that of the Plantagenets, the Tudors' predecessors.

The White Queen is set against the background of the Wars of the Roses, a 35-year conflict between the rival Plantagenet houses of York and Lancaster which effectively extinguished the Plantagenet line and gave the Tudors a foothold. It follows the fortunes of Elizabeth Woodville, the queen consort of Edward IV during the late 1400s.

Readers of Gregory's novels will be familiar with the themes: the interactions of power, love and sex, family rivalry and loyalties, strong female characters who navigate with great determination through a male-dominated power structure, and male characters who are either idealized or exceptionally unable to remain faithful to their wives.

On top of this, there is always a thread of magic: typically, Gregory endows her heroines with the Sight, a foretelling ability that goes beyond the merely pyschic, and even with the power to direct events through supernatural means. To me, this supernatural theme always sits a little uneasily on its historical background; yes, powerful women were often accused of witchcraft in the middle ages, but are we seriously invited to consider that a historically documented flood or storm may have been called up by sorcery?

Not that I can recommend Gregory's books on the basis of historical accuracy, having been warned against that by "real historians" who can be surprisingly dismissive of Gregory's research, even though she is no slouch academically (has a Ph.D.) and frequently, as in this book, provides a bibliography for the reader's benefit. Being no historian myself, I honestly can't say how accurate the novels are, but they certainly serve to spark interest in my country's bewildering tangle of kings and queens and the great families that supported and strove against them (often simultaneously).

Nonetheless, The White Queen will satisfy most Gregory fans with its clear, direct writing and compelling first-person-present point of view. The simplicity and short length of many of Gregory's more recent novels (this one is 400 pages) makes them quite suitable for youth/young adult readers and a great relaxation read if, like me, you've been tackling too many heavy tomes lately.

So yes, I enjoyed the novel as an easy, relaxing read with an interesting historical background. BUT. I wish, I wish, I wish that Gregory would return to pure fiction. I really do. Wideacre, and stand-alone novels such as Fallen Skies, showed such a talent for probing the darker sides of human nature and such a broad scope of imagination that I've always wanted more. It's hard to criticize a highly successful novelist on the basis that she should be stretching herself when you're nowt but a humble reader, but that's my honest opinion. For me, these "kings and queens" books are like candy: they satisfy in the short term, but in the long run leave me longing for some meat and potatoes.

So I'm giving this one the slightly damning "beach read" rating, knowing that my opinion will not make the tiniest dent in her impressive sales record. And yes, I'll check the next Philippa Gregory novel out of the library, along with the hundreds of others who put the book on hold. Yet I won't feel compelled to buy it, which is telling.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


[Cheryl already reviewed The Magicians here, and did an extraordinarily incisive and succinct job of it. I think my take-home was a little different, though, so I'm popping up another review.]

Quentin Coldwater is a generally unhappy too-smart- for-his- own-good high school senior who hopes to go to Princeton, sort of. His one life happiness is rereading the Fillory books, a children's fantasy series about a family of brothers and sisters who go to the magical land of Fillory and have happy adventures. So when Quentin receives an alternative offer--an invitation to Brakesbill College of magic, he thinks he's escaped his life of human unhappiness. Little does he know that even magic can't protect us from certain elements of growing up.

The tagline I'd heard for this book was "Harry Potter for grown-ups," and it's not far off. The story is much darker but still palatable to those craving a little everyday magic. But if I have a couple more words to describe it, I would say it is an homage to our nearly-universal craving for escapist magic, and a comment on the naivete of wishing for magical easy-out clauses. The magicians in The Magicians are, if anything, even less happy and/or satisfied than regular humans, who can at least spend their energy working to survive and feed themselves. The magicians, who have no need to do so, have to figure out other reasons to live.

The book itself not pretending to be new or creative--Grossman isn't breaking ground, here; he's re-examining broken ground for what countless genre authors have not tried to see in the past--and as such the narrative is self-reflective. For quick example, the characters may be obsessed with Plover's fictional Fillory series, but they're obviously all familiar with Harry Potter, which they reference in a blase fashion, and know elements of their life correspond to Hogwarts. The allusions throughout are fun and varied, from the disaffected, malaise-y Quentin Coldwater who spirals into depression at college (anyone else thought of Faulkner's Quentin Compson?) to Fillory's hills of the Chankly Bore (Edward Lear), and other bigger and smaller things throughout.

I agree with Cheryl that the plot, which covers rather a lot of ground for its brief number of pages, is episodic and as such a little thin in character development and engagement. I also was a little disappointed at the plot turn that begins in Book III, simply because I was hoping the book would be more narrative and less allegory. However, in the end I came around to Grossman's composition and his aim.

In essense, this isn't a book about magic. It's a book about why we want to believe in magic, and what the real meaning of life is. It sounds grandiose to put it in writing like that, but Grossman is honest and straightforward about that preoccupation of his, and in the end I think what is initially dissatisfying about the plot--for me, a dissatisfaction that dissipated as I thought about it--is our wish for happy, or at least conclusive, endings, something Grossman is trying to show us is purely fantastic.

Overall, I enjoyed and am glad I've read. Tried to keep the review spoiler-free, but I'd love to talk spoilers in the comments!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

CEO, by Patricia E. Gitt

Melissa Lynn (M.L.) Horn has just been named CEO of United Chemicals Corporation, a position only previously held by men. This is big news, and journalist Pamela Green jumps at the opportunity to write M.L.'s biography. Pamela becomes M.L.'s shadow, gaining an insider's view of the corporate Men's Club, and all the while contemplating, just how did this woman make it to the top?

William S. Foley has other plans for M.L., namely, to dethrone her from the position he felt was rightfully his. Let the backbiting and politics ensue.

Meanwhile, Pamela is learning about corporate mergers, Wall Street, attending meetings with New York's elite, and receiving more than a few mentions that certain things are to be kept "off the record." And still, she doesn't feel she's seen the real M.L., the woman underneath the CEO title. Deep down, she must have the needs and desires common to all women, right?

What Pamela isn't privy to, however, is that M.L. has just that. While vacationing in Largo Verde, she meets a man who frees her soft interior, and she begins to question whether or not all those years of sacrifice, of being married to her career, were worth it. She has everything--money, power, her dream job--so why does she feel that something is still missing?

M.L. seeks the answers to these unexpected questions, and when she finds them, she realizes that success and happiness do not always go hand in hand.

CEO is set in the final years of the 1990's, when Fortune 500 companies were still flying high on their egos, before the uncertainties that followed 9/11. Gitt does an excellent job of showing how getting what you want isn't necessarily what you want (on both sides of the coin), with a flavorful cast of characters that each bring their own angle to the core story.

For more about this book and this author:

Savvy Lady


Saturday, January 16, 2010

OF HUMAN BONDAGE - W. Somerset Maugham

This "semi-autobiographical fiction" tome begins with the childhood of Philip Carey, an orphaned, sensitive lad whose clubfoot and reliance on the charity of distant relatives causes every chaff or whistle to feel like sandpaper against his fragile soul.

The reader watches Philip's ventures through life, from a student in Germany to art school in Paris, then back to London for medical school. Throughout it all, his views on love, politics, religion, and beauty meld and waver. It is as if watching yourself repeat high school through an ancient, bubbled window.

However, it is his love/hate relationship with Mildred that causes the most pain and passion in his life. Maeve Binchy, whose writing I adore, wrote it best when she stated that she wanted to send an anonymous letter to this character to warn him of Mildred's evil intentions. This character is the symbol of all: the hope and luster of youth, the despair of broken dreams, and the realization of the self.

Knowing that this book was published in 1915 makes the stories and messages even more astounding. The only subject that is not referred to is homosexuality, which I found surprising considering Maughan was "a raging homosexual," according to his biography by Ted Morgan. But to think of others reading about premarital sex, prostitution, strippers, or atheism must have been shocking at the time.

Perhaps because I could identify with his journey in religious thought or his ability to find beauty in the most common of situations (the charm of an impoverished couple who were delighted that he - a "gentleman" - shared dinner with them), I relished every word. Now, I wish there was a sequel. Tell me, dear Philip, what I will experience in the next decades of my life! You have plainly read my thoughts on the past two decades; please tell me more.

4.5 out of 5.0 Pusser's Pain Killers.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Arnold "Junior" Spirit is a 14-year-old boy who is small, lopsided, funny-looking, and constantly picked on. His best friend, Rowdy, is psychopathically violent and the only thing that prevents Junior from getting his face smashed in everyday. He has never much left the Spoken Indian reservation, and probably wouldn't at all if it weren't for an unfortunate episode on his first day of high school (during which he made a teacher bleed). But transferring to Reardan, the predominantly white high school located 22 miles outside the reservation, changes everything about Junior. He goes from being one kind of outcast to another, and must choose between opportunity and loyalty, decide what it actually means to be Indian, what it means to be successful, and what it means to be a friend.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is just an intensely satisfying read. Quick and pacey, Alexie nips through an entire year in 230 brief pages, with catchy illustration and playful typesetting to reinforce the catchy, playful prose. Best, Alexie does not talk down to his readership, or assume their interests are prurient. Rich and multi-layered, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may be written at a language and humor level appropriate for teenagers, but the content is sophisticated and challenging. It was a pleasure to read as a book (as opposed to as a YA book).

Thursday, January 14, 2010


One afternoon in 2007, a young Pakistani man encounters an American in his native city of Lehore, takes him to tea, and tells him the story of his life--his scholarship to Princeton, his first love, his top-tier job at a New York consulting firm, his response to living in America during the 9/11 attacks, and his eventual decision to return to Lehore.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a monologue, one man talking to (or at) another from tea through dinner, dessert, and another cup of tea. Changez narrates his story with almost offputting candor to his nameless, faceless, utterly anonymous American guest. It is brief (perhaps 50,000 words, tops, as a rough guess) and affecting, with interesting ideas about human emotions, our ways of interacting with one another. Certainly worth the afternoon it takes to read.

The narrative is deeply psychological, told to us without interruption by a first person narrator too affable not to trust blindly, whose observations are sharp and thoughtful. Perhaps particularly surprising is his take-home summary of American culture--a culture of fundamentals, or putting aside the larger picture in order to only approach a small and specific task at hand. At his consulting job, Changez (the narrator) was to value a company on their potential worth, just crunching numbers and delivering the result to the client, without concern about who would lose their jobs or what lives would be effected by the result he returned. Ultimately, he could not be this kind of American "fundamentalist"--the surprising origin of the title (or one of them). Hamid's writing is not as subtle as, say, Ishiguro, but is that much more accessible.

There is much to be said further about the book, but it is difficult to do so without revealing plot elements, so I'll stop here and say I highly recommend this book. As for its time-investment-to-brain-value ratio, you simply can't do better.

Anyone who has read and would like to discuss further, please do so in the comments! I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An Echo In The Bone by Diana Gabaldon

Oh woe, I looked to see if anyone else had reviewed this and found Kristin's review - I really shouldn't look, because it turns my review into one long comment. However. Feel free, Dear Reader, to side with one of us - or write your own review...

An Echo In The Bone is, I believe, the 7th book in the long-running Outlander series. On the whole, I've enjoyed Gabaldon's mix of historical novel and sci-fi, even if some of the plotlines have appealed far less than others. I suppose that's not surprising, really, given that we must have had at least 4,000 pages of Jamie and Claire so far, and no novelist can be expected to keep you 100% spellbound over such a long stretch. Gabaldon tries, though: larger-than-life characters (who are improbably attracted to one another, even when unwashed and bleeding, as frequently happens, and have impressively good sex amidst the direst of circumstances); oodles of historical detail; plenty of accents, wee bits o'Gaelic (and sometimes Mohawk) to vary the dialog, and a somewhat predictable OH NO SOMETHING TERRIBLE'S HAPPENED TO JAMIE PHEW HE'S OK OH NO SOMETHING TERRIBLE'S HAPPENED TO CLAIRE... structure that reminds me of a Penelope Pitstop cartoon (and I think it's meant to: Gabaldon writes with her tongue firmly in her cheek.)

In this book [SPOILER] we FINALLY move out of the Carolinas (which was a very static location, IMHO) and into the American Revolution, and Lots of Things Happen. Including a shipwreck, a swamp, some battles, a couple of amputations, encounters with Native Americans, and Benedict Arnold. All in a day's work for Jamie, Claire and their hardy extended family.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the time divide, Brianna & Co.'s life promises for about five minutes to be almost mundane, until actual and would-be time travelers start turning up. I like the connecting device of the letters, which kept the 1980 episodes from becoming boring until they were made considerably more interesting by the Tunnel Incident. Brianna and Roger both annoy the heck out of me, but I can't quite put my finger on why.

Unlike Kristin, I enjoyed this book more than some of the others, and relished some of the funnier aspects of the ending. Gabaldon leaves lots of loose ends dangling for the next book to solve, and I am quite looking forward to the next instalment. Where will it all end, I wonder? Claire and Jamie must be in their sixties by now - will they ever slow down? Will they form a ménage à trois with Lord John? Is Rob a time traveler or just a git? (Link provided for the benefit of my American friends.)

If you haven't read the Outlander series, I'd recommend starting at the beginning rather than here if these reviews whet your appetite. See you in about 4,000 pages. I usually start going around talking wi' a Scotch accent after about 200, so be warned. I'll give it two sporrans up for entertainment value.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


"The history of a family begins," writes Leslie Chang, "when a person leaves home."

As an American, Leslie Chang might be referring to the immigrant ancestor every American has in his or her past. All Americans, like Chang, had a forerunner who chose to or was forced to leave home to come to the States, the person from whom our current identity stems. And indeed, her personal and family history is not absent in this narrative.

But immigration is only one kind of migration, and at the heart of Chang's Factory Girls is one of the largest-scale migrations in human history: the exodus of young women (and men) from ancestral rural plots to jam-packed industrial cities. No oceans or national boundaries are crossed; but they leave, looking for opportunities, and are immersed in a culture of strangers, where the rules you grew up with are inverted and there is no one to count on but yourself.

Chang, who worked for ten years as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in China, offers the lives of "factory girls"--specifically, two young women, Min and Chunming--as a lens for viewing modern China. Cities are buzzing pods of human-pack industry, shoe, phone, and purse factories open around the clock, thousands of workers dorming within them like miniature cities on their own. People live army barrack-style and work without regulation, falsifying ID cards if they are underage, forced into illegal overtime, losing two months' wages if they need to quit.

It is a post-Cultural Revolution and strictly capitalistic era; Mao may be a cult figure printed on T-shirts, but the dogmatic fervor of the mid-20th century is gone. Self-educating and self-advancement are both highly entrepreneurial activities; in China, the "Self-Help" section of the bookstore is called "Success Studies." You can get ahead, but there are no rules to follow except to count on no one but yourself (a theme that repeats at least as often in the book as it does in this review).

The millions of young women taking part in China's migrant diaspora are certainly rewriting history. Leaving villages and plots their families have farmed for hundreds or even thousands of years, these young women--usually in their teens or early twenties--are making their way on a wing and a prayer. The cities they flee to are hours, even days from their families by train, often in parts of China where the native dialect is a new language they have to learn. They go out for good, filial, Confucian reasons--to support their aging or struggling parents, to help put their younger siblings through school so they might have high school diplomas, to pay for the house their parents traditionally would buy for their brother when he gets married. But after the liberation of the city, Confucianism is turned on its ear--if you are the sole source of your parents' income, why should they be able to dictate, for example, who you marry? And so the factory diaspora has changed even the deepest ingrained aspects of rural culture.

Factory Girls follows Min, a factory girl who works her way up gradually to clerk, and Chunming, an ambitious opportunity-grasper who jumps from industry to industry in a highly dramatic roller coaster of fortunes, as they navigate the traps and treats of Dongguan, an industrial city of perhaps 10 million people in Guangdong, Southern China. Along the way, Chang touches upon such interesting topics as speed-dating for busy city workers, personal advancement schemes like learning English by assembly line, and returning to the countryside for rural New Year and wedding celebrations. It is a multifaceted portrayal, and one that is respectful on a personal level. It is clear Chang feels great sympathy for the women she follows, if not, perhaps, for the institutions in which they struggle for breakthrough.

The book is highly readable, despite the fact that Chang gracefully breaks many rules of nonfiction book composition. She has unapologetically pastes her own family's story alongside those of Chunming and Min, allowing the Zhang family story to stand in for the first half of China's 20th-century. The Zhang family narrative may be self-indulgent and off the path of the eponymous factory girls meant to be the heart of this book, but Chang's own story is interesting to read, and so she's quickly forgiven. She succeeds in drawing a parallel (albeit a tenuous one) between the migrants in modern Southern China and their migrant and immigrant predecessors. More importantly, she uses the life stories of her great-grandfather and grandfather as a crash-course in Chinese history and politics, from national diaspora through Qing dynasty China through Mao's revolution and international diaspora to flee Communism.

The portrait of China painted in Factory Girls is a vivid one, if not always (or, perhaps, ever) an enticing one. Readers looking for a sympathetic treatment of Communism or the Revolution will not find one here (perhaps unsurprising, given the circumstances that forced Chang's predecessors out of China). Chang's ambivalence toward the land of her grandparents comes through. Her writing covers ten years of her life, so one imagines she must have chosen to stay out of love, but there is sorrow and bitterness running shallowly beneath her account. But the closeness of the narrative, the clarity, thoughtfulness, and sympathy, are riveting. It is difficult to put the book down once it is begun.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Melinda Lo/ASH

Ash (Aisling) grows up in a town cupped by woods everyone believes to be enchanted, and her mother teaches her from an early age the dangers of wandering into the fairy world, whose stories never have happy endings for the humans involved. But Ash is fearless, and convinced that these fairies everyone half-believes in can somehow restore her late mother to her, and spends her time walking in the woods and reading fairytales in hopes that she will find the secret to bridging that chasm of death. When she is orphaned at age 13, Ash's abusive stepmother moves her away from her beloved wood and installs Ash as maid in her manor closer to town. To escape her domestic prison, Ash developes a treacherous friendship with a beautiful man she is sure is a fairy. At the same time, Ash is deepening her human friendship with the king's Huntress, a kind and adventurous young woman who offers the keys to a different and happier human world. But what can this fairy man really offer her, and what is the price? And how can she reconcile her obligations to him with her increasing desire to remain part of the human realm?

Before reading it, I had heard Ash billed as a Young Adult lesbian retelling of the Cinderella story. If that tagline draws in a readership, then I suppose it has done its job, but it is an oversimplification that does not do justice to the multiple tensions of the plot or the rich, hypnotic fairy world Lo builts around Ash. Lo does not talk down to her YA readers, and although this is a coming-of-age story, YA-appropriate with no explicit content, adult readers will be equally entertained. She also takes a careful and multidimensional approach to the potentially difficult subject of emerging sexuality, offering a mythical and metaphoric counterpart for the complexities GLBT teens face in modern society. The language is appropriate for the subject of a dangerous, haunting fairy world, transportive and spellbinding. I fell victim of Lo's cinematic imagery. In fact--I can't be sure that this will be construed as a compliment, but in this case I certainly mean it as one--the prose made me wish very much I could see the whole story--woods, hunts, ballrooms, costumes, fairy world, bonfires--on a big screen. I recommend this book and look forward to reading Lo's next project.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dolen Perkins-Valdez/WENCH

1853: Nestled in the secluded countryside near Dayton, Ohio--the free state, Ohio--is a stream whose waters are well-known for their healing and restorative properties. This may be why wealthy whites, both Northern and Southern, like to spend their summers at Tawawa, a hotel resort there (for wealthy free black people, there is a well-separated resort nearby). Among those who come up each summer are a number of plantation owners from Louisiana and Tennessee who, conveniently separated from their wives for the summer, bring their slave mistresses up to keep them company. These slave mistresses, brought to free soil rife with bounty hunters, must spend summer after summer together watching the free blacks around them live in relative luxury, as their masters have their children held hostage back at their plantations, a deterrent to thinking too hard about the possibilities of the short, dangerous dash to freedom. A perfect storm.

Tawawa is an overlooked piece of American history and a likely template for a powerful novel. In Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez offers a new and nuanced depiction of American slavery in several of its forms. Lizzie, the 23-year-old woman at the novel's heart, has been her master Drayle's mistress since she was thirteen, and has born him two children where his barren wife has produced none. She lives in the guest bedroom in Drayle's plantation's big house, and her children have not (as yet) known field work or the whip. Lizzie entertains unsuppressible hope that Drayle will eventually see them as his children and not his property and free them. In the meantime, she uses her slender margin of power to pull favors for other slaves where she can.

For Lizzie, the temptation to run is not what it is to some of her mistress friends--Mawu, dragged North much against her wishes, has good reason to hate her master with her physically violent fury. Reenie, quiet and older than the other women, is hiding dark dark secrets that run much deeper than Lizzie realizes. As their and other stories mix and change over the summer, Lizzie and each of her friends must ask themselves difficult questions about their loyalties, love, and the actual value of freedom.

Perkins-Valdez's writing is both page-turning and picturesque. She does not indulge in graphic description but rather brings her narrative color through calculated understatement. Even those who find the subject difficult to read about or tired are likely to get something from this thoughtful and original work.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES - Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Jane Austen must have rolled over in her grave so many times that she is nothing but dust.

I'll admit that I was ashamed to read this book. As an admirer of Jane Austen, I thought that this book was a cruel attempt to solicit laughs and publication ("now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem!").

However, it was recommended to me by several people. That is my reading goal for 2010 at Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner: to read the books that people (hairdressers, students, mentors, friends, butchers, candlestick-makers) tell me "is amazing," "made me cry," "is my favorite all-time book," etc. So, this is the first of many reviews where I may hurt someone's feelings.

Yes, this book follows the original tale, but with many more 21st century twists. For example, at the end in the clever reader's discussion guide, it asks, "Does Mrs. Bennett have any redeeming qualities?" Tee-hee.

So, upon reading this, I found myself split in half:
English Professor: This is horrible! Poor Jane Austen.
Naughty Self: (while laughing out loud) This is how I pictured Mrs. Bennett in my head! "... I am sure my dinners are good enough for her, since she is an unmarried woman of seven-and-twenty, and as such should expect little more than a crust of bread washed down with a cup of loneliness."
English Professor: No one will read Austen now, and my students will quote from this book as if it were the original; however, more students will understand references to Mr. Darcy.
Naughty Self: Another "balls" joke. (more laughing out loud)

I suppose if I have to combine the two reactions, I believe in the "imitation is flattery" argument. If anyone dares touch To Kill a Mockingbird in such a way, I shall have to suffer the seven cuts of shame and use my blade to smite all involved.

2.85 out of 5.0 Zombies.

P.S. Natalie Portman purchased the rights to produce and star in the movie version. And I thought her colon was made of cement.


Bertram "Bertie" Wooster is a lazy, self-indulgent, amiable, and wealthy British bachelor with an endless supply of needy friends getting into disastrous shenanigans (often ones that include wealthy aunts and inheretances on the brink of loss, or love affairs gone sour through misunderstandings). Luckily, Bertie has hapless his life beaten into order by a new and tyrannical valet, Jeeves, a man of resolute opinions, crafty ideas, and tons of circumspect gossip. This particular volume in the Jeeves series features 9 separate episodes, in each of which Jeeves is put upon to save the day through various machinations. It should also be mentioned that in at least half the cases Jeeves is the one who creates the problem that needs to be solved, but somehow always comes out looking like a hero in the end.

Another product of my Fill-in-the-Gaps list: Jeeves, the know-it-all valet, has become a kind of cultural idiom in the English speaking world, but I'd never actually read any of the literature in the Jeeves series, or anything by Wodehouse, the very prolific transatlantic humorist. (I'd never even seen any of the BBC dramatizations, although now I've added them to my Netflix queue, natch.) The prose is light and enjoyable--really very much in the vein of arch slapstick bourgeois British comedy--and although I don't think I'm going to become one of the rabid Wodehouse worshipers (I know there are armies of adherents) I'm very glad I got a taste.